Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ain't no mountain high enough...

"Bubz, we are going to Kashmir. Off the beaten track Kashmir, yes sirree - none of these shikaras and silly costumes. We shall be intrepid explorers, scaling the mountains high and valleys low - only us and nature. And then some rest and relaxation in a little cottage nestled away from the hustle and bustle."

I looked at him with only one thing on my mind - "What about the loo?" 
"The loo?", he asked.
"The loo?", I repeated
"To poo?", he asked stupidly
"And to pee", I elaborated.
"Well what about it?", he asked
"Oh speed up man! On this trek - what is the loo situation?"
"I assume it will be in a tent, with running hot water, an automatic toilet seat warmer and some books stacked at the side" he rambled.
"Don't take this lightly, I am not crouching behind rocks with cows and sheep grazing in sight, giving me disgusted looks"
"Oh bubz, they do it in the open, I'm sure they won't mind!"
"Siddharth!", I shrieked.

He leapt to it and bounded off. I heard him dialing furiously and then fiercely whispering, "Shamsher, listen partner. She won't do it in the open...no not that man, call up and find out the loo situation from the agency. Yes, she said ok if it's a medium level trek and she said clean loo, clean sheets...". I ensured that I followed up over the next few days, belting out "LOO!" every time I saw Siddharth until he finally announced that all had been set and the agency organising the trek had said there would be tented arrangements made to my satisfaction and I would not have to drink "jaundice" water - my definition of any dodgy looking H2O.  I had married him, vowing to trust him through thick and thin, so I decided that his word was solid gold.

So off we went to Kashmir with our darling Neha and Shamsher in tow, our travelling companions
who have embarked with us on a few different journeys now.  We haven't torn each other to pieces yet in such close proximity so we keep at it each year! Our arrival in Srinagar was as scheduled and we got straight into our waiting car with beaming driver - an entertaining chap called Kamran, who took great pride in telling us about Srinagar, religion, politics and how he enjoyed some of Ella Fitzgerald's music which Shamsher put on the car audio system.  Typical to us we retreated with lots of beer in tow straight to our houseboat on Dal Lake, refusing to be taken to all the lovely gardens as we are just plain lazy and do whatever we feel like doing when we feel like doing it.  Srinagar went in a pleasant haze of lots of shikara rides, some particularly memorable ones - a silent float towards the old city by night, watching the people of the lake skillfully navigate their shikaras through the waterways, boatloads of vegetables, of trinkets and baubles, of melting ice cream and corn on the cob jostling amicably alongside people on their way home, rowing purposefully whilst perched precariously on the tip.  By morning a silent calm stretch, the crumbling buildings as we approached the old city, ducks bobbing in and out of the water looking surprised when they surfaced as if to say "Dammit, we've only got this far?".  We went for a pleasant ramble in Dachigham along gurgling streams, bought second hand books in a Sunday market and stuffed ourselves silly at Aadoos with mirchi rogan josh, Kashmiri pulao and what we called 'rum balls', devoid of rum and not strictly ball-shaped.


Thus fortified and rested we made our way after a day and a half in Srinagar to start our trek, three hours away at a place called Naragnag. Our final destination was about 5000 feet away at
spectacular Gangbal Lake, at 13000 feet - one of the many captivating high altitude lakes in this amazing terrain. At the start I knew little of how literally I would get a feel
for the terrain (I clambered with my hands, slipped and slid around on my bum and wobbled precariously at most places!). After a mild ramble through an old temple at Naragnag we were off with some sturdy ponies in tow, stumpy sticks for support and much enthusiasm. Until we got to the first five minutes, which were uphill. Then till the next ten minutes, which were also uphill. Till the next 3 hours, which were at such a steep ascent I thought my feet would get jammed at a 45 degree angle. Loose rock and pebbles, a surprising amount of traffic in the form of groups of cheerful local Kashmiri men who all encouraged us on amiably with 'aaram aaram seh chalo' and not having enough breath to negotiate more than 30 seconds at a time without having to wheeze to a halt, was pretty much how we made it up to the midway point.  There was an episode where Neha tried to snuff me out by making me eat Glucose without water (we though our guides were meant to carry it, but turns out they had other plans in store for us) and I almost choked thinking, "If I die now at least I won't have to climb any further!" After three and a quarter hours we had reached midway and stopped for the night by a small hut on a slope with a cheerful stream nearby. Our lovely guide, Mujib, who kept us motivated and entertained with topics ranging from Bollywood to the Great Gatsby, quickly got us settled in. We forgot the ascent in minutes, as we watched the tents set up and dove inside them like excited children - warm, dry and quite roomy. The night came swiftly, and amid eating a dinner of MTR pre cooked food with rice and discovering that I would have to drink from the stream (the horror!); discovering that the loo was a cloth looped over some branches covering three sides and one was better off finding a rock or a tree (the utter horror!); and then resigning myself to three days of "not thinking about it", I calmed down. Nestled into one tent while we drank the abundant loot of whiskey we had brought with us, speculating about what looked like a fire in the distance, only to discover it was a blazing moon rising rapidly from behind the mountains, pouring out a radiant silver that just left us awestruck. I fell asleep quite quickly, but the night was punctuated with much restlessness due to the new surroundings and the utter panic when I needed to go to the
loo. Sid was shaken awake to be my lookout, and he escorted me chivalrously up the slope. I came back to see him missing - seconds later I noticed much neighing and turned to see Sid scampering down the slopes with one of our ponies in hot pursuit - he had startled it in the dark, while it was wooing its lady love and whether it leapt after him in anger with the interruption, or because it was already in an amorous mood - we will never know, since we dove back into the safety of our tent before the tattu tried anything!

The next morning, memories of lusting equines were driven out of our thoughts as we proceeded on
the second leg of our trek towards Gangbal.  The terrain was much more forgiving on this stretch and also varied - a forest trail, opening into alpine meadows replete with grazing sheep and horses and an army camp, inhabitants of the latter glaring forbiddingly at Sid who had a camera that could be spotted a mile away.  After
the first two hours, fatigue set in again and the landscape though lovely, was hardly noticed as we negotiated giant rocks from dried up riverbeds, concentrating on balance every step of the way. More ascents and previously undiscovered vertigo surfaced on narrow paths with sheer drops where everything swam before my eyes and I held Sid's hand tightly and sidled across the path, my back to the drop, singing to myself to keep calm (for some reason only Boy George songs came to mind at the time!).  As the trek carried on and I brought up the rear consistently, I thought many murderous thoughts of how I would strangle Sid next time he suggested a "medium" trek or perhaps drown him in the elusive lake which our guide promised we would reach in 15 minutes. After an hour we finally got there and though I didn't fully appreciate it at the time since I was so tired, it was definitely the first time I had seen anything like it -  an expanse of calm water, smooth like glass and invitingly blue, a snow capped glacier (Harmukh) rising behind it, feeding it with deliciously cool water. The evening passed in a pleasant haze of a brilliant starry night, fresh trout which was given to us by the neighbouring tent and which we devoured with sticky fingers, and more whisky. The latter was shared every evening with the accompanying shepherds who downed their share very quickly and though they were as sure footed as mountain goats when trotting up and down the slopes, they tried to convince us that they had tripped while holding the glass and spilt their share and needed some more! Experts at being one with nature now, finding convenient rocks and trees and being good look-outs had grown on us, though Shamsher probably needed more practice since Neha was almost discovered by a bunch of friendly shepherds and their ponies as they wandered by her with Shamsher looking out in the opposite direction!

We spent the next morning wandering around the lake, Shamsher and Neha trudged up further to the higher lake and to "touch the snow", while Sid and I settled beside a stream, which he almost fell into and only the thought of me yelling at him if he washed past me in the rapids ("I tolddd you not to stand at the edge, serves you right!") made him keep his balance. Though the trek can be done in one day (6-8 hours one way from Naragnag to Gangbal) and then back the next day, since we knew how long it had taken us to get there we decided to split our journey on the way back as well. Which was wise. Though we were more used to the terrain now, the initial excitement where the slopes only seemed to go downhill and we scampered through the meadows, our early enthusiasm once again waned after the first two hours.  Rocky river beds and loose pebbles on the forest trail slowed progress considerably and four hours later we were back at the hut from the first night. Murderous thoughts, a terrible headache from my sinus problem (bad idea to not wear a jacket the first day even though it was warm) and having finished our supply of water from the lake, put me in a bad mood, but once again it lifted as we settled into our tents and saw the dazzling Milky Way that night and laughed our fatigue away with Haldiram's namkeen, Jumpin mango juice (only available in the mountains of Kashmir since I haven't seen it anywhere else in ages!) and 'party mix', depleting our store of whisky and lightening the ponies' load for the next day. A brilliant morning dawned and it was the final descent to Naragnag which I hoped would be quicker than the ascent - wrong! Steep, rocky, loose rubble and an old knee injury forced me to walk sideways down the mountain the entire time holding on to Sid's hand, progressing at a snail's pace. Four hours later we were done, wobbly legged, burnt brown to a crisp, in need of hot showers, and after hydrating ourselves with copious amounts of water - we all definitely felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

I didn't appreciate it as much when I was on the trek since all we could do was concentrate on
navigating the terrain, but it was a first and hopefully not my last! Whether I will do a "medium" level trek like that again is still to be seen, but emboldened by being able to make it up and down, though slow and whiny, has definitely motivated me. Sid may think twice before suggesting we do it again since he is hoping my murderous thoughts won't translate into reality!

With such devastation in Kashmir right now, I'm thankful we were able to see some of the most captivating and awe inspiring parts of the state, and hope that soon others will be flocking there to see what we did. It was bloody hard, but I at least, felt bloody proud that we managed to scale the "mountains high and valleys low", just as Sid intended.

You can see more pictures of the trek and our trip here, and if you want to know about the Great Lakes trek, which includes Gangbal here is an overview from a trekker at Indiahikes.in

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